FX Excursions

FX Excursions offers the chance for once-in-a-lifetime experiences in destinations around the world.

Drives: Taif To Jeddah

Jan 28, 2014
2014 / February 2014

In the small hours of a moonless night, it’s just a road. Lit by sodium lights, it twists up through darkness, seemingly suspended in the void. We have it almost to ourselves. My cousin is driving, neatly negotiating a continual sequence of rising bends. I gaze beyond the meandering river of light into velvet blackness. This, I have been told, is one of the greatest roads in the world. I can’t see why.

I had flown into Jeddah, on the sweltering Red Sea coast, at midnight. To reach my cousin’s house, we must drive up one of the northern reaches of the Great Rift Valley, the geological fissure that extends from Mozambique to Syria. At the top of the escarpment, we pass through the hauntingly quiet city of Taif. At 3 a.m., there is no hint this is currently the seasonal seat of the Saudi Arabian government, which relocates here each summer to escape the furnace-like temperatures of Riyadh.

Two weeks later, I make the return journey to Jeddah in daylight. By now, I regard any venture onto Saudi roads with extreme anxiety. I have faced sandstorms which reduce visibility to just a few feet. I have endured countless near misses with the local kamikaze drivers. And I have witnessed the horrific aftermath of a couple of accidents.

We reach the brink of the escarpment and pull to the side of the road. What a difference daylight makes. From our high perch, we survey a panorama of stark rock dropping sharply down to the pale, sandy lowlands. The scenery is far removed from our green, temperate homeland; we might as well be looking at Mars.

Soon, wild baboons insistently begging for food surround us. My cousin pretends to pick up a loose stone. The troop bounds away from us, down the mountainside, adroitly leaping from rock to rock.

We return to our vehicle and begin the descent. The two-lane highway improbably etches its way down the sheer contours. The comforts of the smooth, wide road are offset by the standard of driving. No concessions are made to the hazards. Vehicles flash past us at frightening speed. Tires squeal as they negotiate the sharp switchbacks.

I fix my eyes on the breathtaking view. It’s like being in an airplane during a particularly tortuous approach to land. Gradually, the tiny rooftops below us gain in size and clarity. At last, the road flattens, broadens and straightens, heading west to the coast.

There is a significant obstruction between us and Jeddah. Signs above the highway announce that we are getting close to it. Three lanes are designated for Muslims only. The remaining two lanes, “Obligatory for non-Muslims,” peel off onto the so-called “Christian bypass.” We won’t be allowed any nearer to Mecca. Beyond this point, all travelers must produce documentation from their mosque to permit entry to the holy city.

The bypass skirts behind a range of hills to the south of Mecca, adding 70 miles to our trip. Close to the road, blue water and green vegetation temporarily disrupt the barren desert. These are Mecca’s sewage ponds. Once we get used to the stench, they prove to be an excellent bird-watching stop. We make good use of our binoculars, spotting kingfishers and waders.

Toward Jeddah, the air becomes more humid and the traffic builds. On the outskirts of the city we are caught in the first of many jams. I look back wistfully at the way we’ve come. The same spectacular route plied for centuries by nomads, by camel trains, by pilgrims. It’s more than a road. It’s a journey.

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FX Excursions

FX Excursions offers the chance for once-in-a-lifetime experiences in destinations around the world.

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